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Tension over missile sales threatened Anglo-French ties.

FEARS France could allow Argentina to acquire deadly Exocet missiles at the height of the Falklands War strained Margaret Thatcher's relationship with president Francois Mitterrand close to breaking point, the files reveal today.

Publicly Thatcher always praised Mitterrand for his support during the conflict, but papers reveal the suspicion and distrust of the French in London.

Britain woke up to the threat of the Exocet on May 4, when a pair of Argentinian air force Super Etendard fighters attacked the British Task Force heading to the Falklands and fired two guided missiles.

One Exocet hit the Type-42 destroyer, HMS Sheffield, crippling the ship, which finally sank six days later, and killing 20 crew. Three weeks later, on May 25, the Super Etendards struck again, firing two more Exocets. This time they hit and sunk the Atlantic Conveyor - a ferry carrying vital supplies.

Initially the French were reluctant to reveal how many of the air-launched Exocet AM39s they had supplied to Argentina. It was only on May 11, a week after the attack on the Sheffield, that the British embassy in Paris was informed that an order for 10 missiles had been agreed - of which five had been delivered. While the French promised not to complete the order while the conflict continued.

In Whitehall concern was growing that France was preparing to release a consignment of four Exocet AM39s to Peru - despite clear warnings from British and French intelligence that they would end up in Argentina.

On May 17, Thatcher raised the issue with Mitterrand at a meeting in Downing Street and won an assurance from the president that the missiles would be delayed for "as long as necessary". However, less than two weeks later on May 29, Mitterrand telephoned Downing Street to say that he was in a "difficult position" over the Peruvian deal.

"Peru had made it known to other Latin American countries that France was declining to execute the contract," he informed Thatcher. "Consequently, France's contracts with other Latin American countries were in danger."

Dismayed, Thatcher said she could not discuss the matter on an open phone line. Instead the following day she fired off a blistering telegram.

"If it became known, as it certainly would, that France was now releasing weapons to Peru that would certainly be passed on to Argentina for use against us, France's ally, this would have a devastating effect on the relationship between our two countries," she told Mitterrand."

Her broadside had the desired effect. The following day the French said they would tell the Peruvians the missiles could not be sent for "political reasons".

However, while distrust of the French remained British troops entered Port Stanley on June 14 and the war was over.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:3ARGE
Date:Dec 28, 2012
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